A Quick Guide to Handling Strong Emotions in the Workplace

April 4, 2018 | 1,495 views

A Quick Guide to Handling Strong Emotions in the Workplace

A Quick Guide to Handling Strong Emotions in the Workplace

Picture this: You’re in a meeting with an employee for his quarterly performance review and you get to the section where you’re discussing areas of improvement. While talking about these opportunities, the conversation gets a little bit heated. He’s defensive and you’re focused on helping him improve as an employee. How do you proceed?


Unfortunately, strong emotions like these aren’t uncommon. You’re likely to encounter them during touchy points in your career as a manager, such as not being able to approve as much time off during the holidays, or managing the schedule during a break up between your two employees. Although you can’t stop emotions from rising to the surface, you can manage how you react to these emotions. Here’s how.


Introducing: Holding Environments

When adults feel strong emotions, such as anger or anxiety, it’s your job as a manager to quickly shuffle them away from those feelings toward a place where they feel safe. In a study by William A. Kahn, adults benefit from having “holding environments” during these types of conversations.


These holding environments are not physical places. They’re groups of people and established interpersonal relationships where an employee can feel safe going to during times when he’s feeling extra vulnerable, such as during a performance review or while working with an old flame.


To design holding environments that work in your business, there are three core components you’ll need in order to ensure this concept works.


  1. Empathy
  2. Safety
  3. Honest Feedback



When a person has strong emotions, the last thing he wants to hear is that he’s wrong. Taking an empathetic stance means putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. By doing this, you, or the people in the holding environment, make the person feel heard and validated, which is the first step toward breaking down any barriers that went up during a difficult experience.


Empathetic responses help a person get back in touch with his sense of self after getting shaken up emotionally. This sense of self then helps him function better as he processes what he’s feeling.



Holding environments have been proven to work because they create a safe space before anything goes wrong. Having these holding environments in place shows your employees that you are prepared to help them work through any conflict that might arise instead of making them feel trapped and isolated. This feeling of safety is critical when emotions start running strong.


Honest Feedback

Once the person’s emotions have been validated and he is surrounded by people he trusts and feels safe with, he’s in a position to start making better sense of the situation. This level-headed approach is critical when it comes to decision making and taking appropriate action. The role of the people within that holding environment is to support his efforts to make better choices.


Will You Incorporate Holding Environments in Your Office?

Having these circles of trust in your office can be incredibly powerful as you aim to diffuse tense situations. Are holding environments a concept you anticipate implementing in your office?



Author Profile Jon Forknell is the Vice President and General Manager of Atlas Business Solutions, Inc., a software marketing company specializing in employee scheduling software, including ScheduleBase employee scheduling software, and other business software solutions. In the past, Jon has been recognized by the U.S. Small Business Administration as a SBA Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Atlas Business Solutions was named as one of Software Magazine’s Top 500 Software Companies in 2004 through 2007 and again in 2010, 2013 and 2014.

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